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OLYMPIA — Leaders of Washington state and Japan’s Hyogo prefecture marked the oldest “sister-state” relationship in either country Monday by making speeches, planting a tree and feasting on smoked salmon and barbecue.

The link between the two regions marked its half-century this summer since that relationship started.

“These ties are as important now as they were then,” Gov. Jay Inslee told a Senate chamber where the floor and galleries were filled with local residents and visitors from Japan.

During that period, Washington’s ports and airports have linked it to every corner of the world and Hyogo has become a global economic, cultural and educational leader, Inslee said at a ceremony to sign a new document commemorating the relationship.

“From 50 years ago, I think the world has become smaller. We’re becoming closer and closer,” Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido said through an interpreter at the ceremony.

Washington and Hyogo have sent each other aid and comfort in difficult times, such as during the Japanese earthquakes two years ago, and after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Ido said. When he heard that Seattle residents gathered on the anniversary of the Jan. 17, 1995, quake to ring the bells from Kobe, their sister city, Ido said, “I am deeply moved.”

Earlier in the day, Inslee and Ido put finishing shovels of dirt on a star magnolia tree that marks the anniversary. It’s not far from a Japanese cypress tree planted on the 30th anniversary, which now stands 45 feet tall.

“The tree will grow and I think our friendship will be even greater,” Ido said.

Also marking the occasion was food. Japan’s special Kobe beef was served at lunch in the governor’s mansion. After the signing ceremony, however, the reception outside the Capitol included some more Pacific Northwest fare, including king salmon smoked throughout the day over an open fire by the Chehalis Tribe and barbecued beef from the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.